Flooded city of Hamburg at Wilhelmsburg in 1962. Photo by Gerhard Pietsch. View image source
A huge storm system, a spring tide. A large port city, a vulnerable coastline. Dams and levies breaking or being overflown, low-lying areas being flooded with little or no warning in the middle of a moonless night. Desperate families, many of them in their nightgowns, barefoot, freezing on the roofs of their flimsy houses—in trees, even. Once daylight breaks, waving to rescue crews on rubber boats, if they have made it through the night.
This was the big winter hurricane that devastated the port city of Hamburg, Germany, in February 1962. It killed 315 people. Most of the people who died were displaced by the not-so-distant war—refugees from Poland and Central Europe, living in structures resembling trailer parks in the U.S. (minus the wheels).
My family lived—had lived for centuries—on the small island of Finkenwerder, in the middle of the Elbe river. This is one of Germany’s biggest rivers, certainly the one with the most powerful tidal hub, which reaches the city twice a day from the North Sea. The ebb and flow is so strong that it is even felt in the system of small drainage canals that crisscrosses the marshy fruit orchards the farmers on Finkenwerder depended on and still depend on. My grandfather, a lifelong teacher at the local school, had built a solid two-family house, out of brick, in the early 1930s for his wife and two young daughters. In February 1962, my grandparents lived on the lower floor of the building. The floor above them (plus the attic) had been taken over by their younger daughter, my mother, and her new husband.
Fortunately for my grandparents, both of their sons-in-law happened to be at the house that evening. But nobody had expected the dams to break so easily, the water to pour across the island with such force, so quickly. The men barely had time to put the dining room chairs onto the dining room table before the water came gushing in, bursting through the door from the basement. They grabbed some photo albums and bedding and rushed upstairs, where my mother and grandmother were sitting by the light of a candle, together with my mother’s 18-months-old niece, my cousin.
My father called me Monday evening, as the storm was screeching around my 11th-floor apartment in Brooklyn. He would never admit it, nor would I, but I knew he was worried about us. He told me a story: How, in his rain boots, he had sat on the wooden staircase that led from the house’s ground floor to the one above, a candle by his side. How he had moved up, stair by stair, moving the candle with him, as the water kept rising, more slowly after the initial assault, almost leisurely. Until it stopped, about halfway up the stairs.
I knew the story. In fact, I had heard it many times. Meanwhile, the women were sitting upstairs, my grandmother clasping my mother’s hands, scared more than anything by the ominous thuds rising from below them: “Wat rummst dor bloos so?” she would ask in their local dialect. My mother feigned ignorance or suggested uprooted trees banging into the outer walls, even though she knew perfectly well what caused the noise: My grandparents’ wooden bedroom set, their beds, the big closet and the vanity with its marble top and mirror, were floating around the bedroom and banging into the walls. I knew that story well.
They were very lucky. The water receded with the low tide. They could go back downstairs. In the fairly recently renovated kitchen my grandmother, usually not known for her prescience, had insisted on keeping one crucial appliance from former decades: a wood-burning stove. They could heat soup, coffee. They even had fresh milk for the toddler, courtesy of volunteers from the local rowing club who came by to check on the neighborhood. Eventually, the little girl and her father were evacuated by a motorized rubber raft of the Bundeswehr, the military. Apparently, she immediately bonded with the rescue dog on board. The most traumatizing aspect of the rescue may have been the bloated cadavers of cattle from the local farms that floated around my family’s house. Once the waters receded, which took a few days, my father’s middle-grade students, from a different part of town (yes, he, too, was a teacher), showed up in force to help with the cleanup.
I was not born yet. In fact, the concept of me didn’t even exist during that February storm. Family lore has it that I was conceived during a weekend getaway to the isle of Heligoland a few weeks later, where my parents went to recuperate from the devastations of the storm and just get away from it all.
After talking to my father on Monday night, I just sat at my desk for a long time, the hurricane singing in my ears, the darkness becoming so complete outside. My 13-year-old daughter was hiding from the storm in her room, shades and curtains drawn, curled up with our cats, streaming some silly TV shows on Netflix.
We were so lucky. We never even lost power. But I could not help but marvel at this coincidence, at the storms that somehow bookend my life. The one that, more than 50 years ago, was so much a part of my childhood—the tales of my family, the story of their town, the plaques that to this day mark the height the water reached in February 1962 in many parts of Hamburg.
And the one that we have witnessed now, in New York. The one that precedes my 50th birthday by just some weeks. I like to think that technology, in forecasting as well as communicating with the population, is the reason why the current disaster has cost so many fewer lives.
Back in Finkenwerder, in the early 1920s, my grandfather’s youngest brother was apprenticed to a joiner. As was customary, he had to build a special piece to graduate. He chose to design a bookcase with intricate carvings and heavy doors broken down into small panes of beveled glass and a set of drawers at the bottom. He also crafted a matching desk, with similar carvings and a leather top. He gifted both pieces to his oldest brother, my grandfather, the teacher. Like my grandparents’ bedroom set, the desk floated around their apartment during the flood of 1962. The water destroyed it; they threw it out. The bookcase, however, stood its ground, weighed down by my grandfather’s books (many of which did not make it): He was a biologist—he loved Brehms Tierleben and equally heavy encyclopedias.
I finally got up from my desk on Monday night and walked out into our living room. I could have turned on the lights, but it didn’t seem right. Outside the window, I could see just a few lights marking Brooklyn Bridge. Manhattan Bridge, like all of lower Manhattan, was pitched into utter darkness. But those few lights shining into my living room were reflected in the beveled glass doors of my bookcase, the bookcase my great-uncle built some 90 years ago. It has been traveling with me through many apartments, and it’s a bit of a pain—the three heavy doors don’t quite close properly; they never have, not since they were thoroughly soaked in the big flood of 1962. It’s a miracle that the bottom drawers close as well as they do. Which is important, since these drawers contain all my family photographs.
I had to move my hand over the panels for a minute, touch fingertips to wood. I felt so lucky that we were spared on the 11th floor, and that the bookcase was safe as well.